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Jean-François MORELCalled an "illiberal democracy" by its current prime minister Victor Orban, a new work by Catherine Horel (in French) explores the history of an emerging Hungary to the present day as a maverick member of the European Union.
In the beginning, it took eight centuries during the Middle Ages to build up a Hungarian state and fully integrate it in the game of the then great powers. The coming of Christianity was a fundamental driver for that.
Groups of Magyar tribes came from the Urals around the year 800, in the wake of the various invasion waves from the East at the end of the Western Roman Empire.

But while those invaders disseminated among the populations already in place, these new Magyar groups succeeded in consolidating themselves as a specific entity in a still fluid environment. Christianisation played a decisive role in allowing the new entity to play on a par with the powerful neighbouring nations: In the year 1000, Hungary became a Christian Kingdom as the King was baptised with his whole family, including his son that was later canonised as King Saint Stephen of Hungary. As it was the only dynasty to have Saints and Blessed among its royals, making an alliance with Hungary meant taking part in this holiness, a fundamental element of its Christianity.
The main Hungarian strategy was to find a sustainable balance between East and West, meaning keeping good relations with the Holy Roman Empire on the one hand and with the Pope on the other hand. Escaping dominance by the Holy Roman Empire was important for general European equilibrium.
After a period of foreign royalty in Hungary between 1308 and 1526, the Ottoman Empire occupied a large part of the Balkan Peninsula. Being twice its size, the Ottoman army defeated the Hungarian army on August 29th 1526 at Mohács. This tremendous shock brought about the collapse of the state, with the king dead, the queen fled, and the flower of the nobility and the clergy bled.
As a result, Hungary was divided in 3 entities under the rule respectively of the Hapsburgs (Catholic, supported by Charles Quint), of the Turcs (religiously neutral) and of the prince of Transylvania (Protestant Calvinist). Striving to embody resistance, the Transylvania part of Hungary put Protestantism as a banner, organised religious training in Swiss and was inspired by the Lumières' philosophy in Western Europe, including Freemasonry. However, the failure of the Transylvanian alliance with the King of France Louis XIV, created a deep and lasting feeling of both idealisation and disappointment with the West that became enshrined in the Hungarian collective soul. It is still there.
A period of exaltation of the Lumières' philosophy ended with the Napoleonic Wars. The Hungarian elites did not follow Napoleon's call to restore the Hungarian nation in his vison. That is in this context in which occurred the great European moment. Contesting the empire, the Hungarians took up arms against the Hapsburgs, whose government collapsed in 1848, the Year of Revolutions. As the independence of Hungary was proclaimed, Austria called on Tsar Nicholas I of Russia to put down the revolutionary government of Kossuth. The Hapsburgs then resorted to repression and imposed their power by force. That led to the Compromise of 1867 and the birth of the Austria-Hungary Empire. That brought about a second deep feeling also enshrined in the Hungarian collective soul that the "villain" is in the East.
Sadly, the next century confirmed that perception. In the wake of the Great War, Hungary suffered the loss of a portion of its territory, which had been promised to Italy for going to war on the Allies' side. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon was followed by a political focus on the "Hungarian land" and the "Hungarian peasant" in order to reunite the nation.
In 1956, having found itself on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Hungarians demanded the ending of foreign domination, for freedom, political parties, and the Christian Cross as a symbol. Again, there were successively big hopes and big disappointment: Western allies would not risk war for Hungary after its Uprising, which was supressed by Warsaw Pact forces. The feeling grew that Europe misunderstood and despised Hungary. This is now reflected in 21st century political speeches, as well as the old idea of oscillation between West and East, reminding the Hungarians that they came from the East at the beginning.
However, the political regime started to disintegrate so that 1989 was a milestone in Hungarian history. Austria played a prominent role when opening its border with Hungary, which found itself at the forefront of the wind of freedom rising in Soviet-dominated Central Europe. The sudden opening its own border with the German Democratic Republic allowed hundreds of East Germans to pass through to the West, which triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union. Independence and membership of NATO and the European Union followed.
Hungary has its next general elections scheduled for April 2022. There is a kind of weariness towards Viktor Orbán, who lost Budapest, while the opposition managed to unite and organise primaries to identify the leader who will challenge him. It is anticipated that the winner will have quite a small majority and could be obliged to build up a coalition government.

Reviewer Admiral (Ret) Jean-François Morel is Editor in chief of Défense and a Member of EuroDéfense-France. This review is based on a presentation organised by EuroDéfense-France on Professor Catherine Horel's book: Histoire de la nation hongroise - Des premiers Magyars à Viktor Orbán. Published by Tallandier 11 November 2021 EAN Number 9791021046535

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